Leep over the learning gap

Gary Clapton has recently joined the University of
Edinburgh as a lecturer and tutor after years of social work and
practice teaching in Edinburgh and London.
Maura Daly is a dedicated practice teacher based with Edinburgh
Family Service Unit. Previously, she worked as a local authority
social worker in children and families. Both have a long-standing
interest in developing student learning.

The new social work degree highlights the importance of
integrating theory and practice. Changes in the way that practice
teaching is delivered, such as the introduction of learning
centres, also make this a good time to re-examine the problem of
relating theory and practice.

The problem of blending theory taught in college with practice
undertaken on placement was highlighted by Argyris and Schon 30
years ago.(1) One of the results from a recent audit of Scottish
practice teaching and learning could have been reported at any time
in the period since then. The audit was undertaken as part of the
Scotland-wide Learning for Ethical and Effective Practice
initiative (Leep) to develop students’ readiness to practice. The
audit revealed that practice teachers identified a clear gap
between the university and fieldwork; and specifically between
theory and practice in social work. Practice teachers spoke of “two
separate worlds” and were critical of universities’ remoteness from
the world of practice.(2)

Those of us involved in the Leep initiative set up a project to
bridge the gap between field and classroom by placing tutors with
students on placement. We decided that tutors (also called academic
advisers) would spend one day a week where students were
undertaking their practice learning. In all, four tutors joined 27
first placement students in four agencies involving a mix of local
authority social work departments and local voluntary

One agency was the Edinburgh Family Service Unit (FSU) which is
part of a UK network. FSUs are non-statutory fieldwork agencies
which support children and families in trouble. Edinburgh FSU
delivers this service in a deprived area in the north of the city.
There were six students of mixed gender and ethnicity. It was their
first placement and it ran for three months.

An average day in our project in the Edinburgh FSU included
scheduled student group sessions that were co-run by practice
teacher and tutor; informal student-tutor chats in the kitchen and
over shared lunches; impromptu teaching sessions that properly got
to grips with “the competences”; and more formal meetings such as
those to review the progress of the placement. A belief that was
carried into all the projects was that tutors should take pains not
to fill in their day in the placement with obligations and that
their doors would be always open. This was achieved at Edinburgh
FSU where the tutor hot-desked with part-time social workers.

Thus an atmosphere was created that challenged traditional barriers
between college (theory) and placement (practice). Students
reported favourably. One said: “I have found the experience of
teaching and support beneficial and appreciated the link of theory
to practice enabled by the input of an academic adviser from the

Practice teachers also praised the initiative. One said: “The
student is using all learning opportunities well and is
particularly positive about the advantages of having an academic
adviser in situ.”

An added development that keys into the current emphasis on
post-registration training and learning was that during the
placements, tutors became involved in organising training and
consultancy for social work staff in the service agency.

We have identified a number of benefits arising from our project.
These include no more perfunctory placement visits, a win for all
involved. Tutor visits are often difficult for many students,
practice teachers and tutors, as the tutor struggles to remember
the student’s name and the practice teacher and student itch to
return to placement teaching and learning.

The presence of an on-site tutor provided a better connection to
students’ placement development in that three-way sessions were
focused and briefer. For example, everyone had become acquainted
with each other and the student’s learning development had been
collectively monitored from the beginning of the placement.

Students benefited from the tutor’s ability to be an extra in-house
resource of specialist knowledge, clarify university requirements
and provide ad hoc tutorials. A greater number of students in these
initiatives were not asked for additional contributions to their
final reports compared with the rest of the student body. The fact
that both practice teacher and tutor had similar experiences when
it came to writing practice studies and final reports, was a relief
for the students.

The FSU benefited in that the tutor became a resource for staff
training and development. Training and development events (new
developments in child protection, working with fathers) were held
with professional and non-professional staff once every three
weeks. These sessions were led by the tutor on his weekly day at
the agency. As a result agency-university relations have developed
and prospered.

Practice teachers felt supported by the presence of a tutor in the
same building; someone who shared placement learning tasks and
could take the time to discuss in detail what had been taught in
university. Knowing exactly what students have covered – and what
they have not – is a regular concern of practice teachers.

Tutors gained by updating their practice knowledge. Those involved
reported a wealth of new material for lectures and tutorials. In
addition, as a result of increased student numbers and static or
diminishing staff numbers, tutors developed a working relationship
with individual students – usually only one or two tutorials are
held in a term.

Ordinarily, tutors do not appear during placements. However, in
this case, by working alongside students and getting to know them,
the tutors were better able to provide academic guidance during the
placement and more focused advice regarding the students’ next

Thus this Leep experiment seems to have worked. Not only have other
students and practice teachers testified to the benefits of having
a tutor on site and the values of group learning, but interest has
been awakened throughout the UK. An invitation to speak about the
projects has come from the annual conference of the Family Service
Units, a visit is scheduled from Northern Ireland and two of the
service agencies involved have asked for the project to be
repeated. Practice teachers’ groups throughout Scotland have also
asked for more information and presentations to these are taking
place or have been scheduled.

A fuller assessment of all experiences of students, practice
teachers and tutors across the projects in Scotland will follow
this year, but a last word (until then) should go to a student: “My
placement is part of the Leep initiative so we have been fortunate
to have an academic adviser at our placement once a week. This has
so far proved to be a valuable resource, support mechanism and link
to the university.”

Gary Clapton and Maura Daly discuss an innovative
approach to helping students link theory and practice in the field.
Placing a tutor in the fieldwork agency alongside students for one
day a week during their placement has been successful for everyone
involved in the experiment. Students report a better learning
experience, practice teacher and tutor worked in unison and both
university and agency have seen benefits.

(1) C Argyris and D Schon, Theory in Practice:
Increasing Professional Expertise, Jossey-Bass, 1974
(2) Scottish Institute For Excellence In Social Work Education,
Learning for Effective and Ethical Practice: Practice Audit,

Contact the author
Gary Clapton can be contacted on: 0131 650 3903/3915,
or e-mail: gary.clapton@ed.ac.uk

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